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Hurricanes, Murders, and Music

By (November 1, 2009) No Comment

The Year Before the Flood

By Ned Sublette
Lawrence Hill Books, 2009

Labor Day. A parade of black men dressed in shiny gold suits marched down St. Claude Avenue, kicking off the autumn season of second lines—parades that march behind brass bands and slowly gather mass, turning into pulsing, mobile block parties. About a mile away, a gaggle of tall men in heavy make-up and big dresses walked to their car between events at Southern Decadence, a weekend-long gay celebration, famous for its outrageous drag queens.

Mardi Gras. Uptown, families arrived early in the morning and set up chairs on the parade routes, ready to catch hundreds of medallions, beads, doubloons, and bundles of glittery coconuts thrown and handed down by members of the Zulu Krewe, perched atop elaborate floats. Downtown, in the Treme, groups of men in skeleton suits with paper mache heads ran through the streets to wake up the neighborhood on carnival day, mingling with a troupe of women dressed as baby dolls in Satin dresses and bonnets.

St. John’s Eve. The Tamborine and Fan Super Sunday parade, a spring event showing community solidarity which began during the Civil Rights era, kicked off up on Bayou St. John. Four brass bands, young boys in straw hats and red bow ties, elaborately plumed members of the Mardi Gras Indians, and hundreds of neighborhood followers snaked through the streets toward the river. As the group passed the deep, brick blocks of the Lafitte housing projects, residents cheered from the balconies. The parade broke up on Claiborne Avenue under the huge concrete interstate trestles, which amplified the bands’ bass drums.

All of those occasions mark time in New Orleans. The ebb and flow of life between festivals and parades, from Labor Day to summer, is recounted with breathtaking insight and honesty in The Year Before the Flood by Ned Sublette. A Musician-turned-music-scholar, Sublette began writing the memoir during the 2004-2005 academic year, while on a fellowship at Tulane University, where he researched The World That Made New Orleans, his book on the city’s early history. Before he finished the memoir, his observations about his year in New Orleans became freighted with significance: All of the above events, observed by Sublette, happened in New Orleans during the months that preceded Hurricane Katrina. In August 2005, a few months after Sublette had returned to New York and a week before Labor Day, the Category Five hurricane’s high winds ravaged the city’s neighborhoods. Floodwaters from the subsequent levee breach inundated them. On the side streets off St. Claude where the second lines had danced, houses soon blossomed with mold. Tiny FEMA trailers, ultimately found to leak toxic formaldehyde which caused major respiratory problems for hundreds of children, packed the sidewalks. Lead shields barricaded the windows and doors of the Lafitte homes to keep residents out while the city decided what to do with its housing projects. The neutral ground under the interstate on Claiborne Avenue where drums had echoed months earlier became a graveyard for abandoned cars, dragged out of mud and rubble by city officials. “Why I was summoned to witness the great American music city up close just before it was scattered to four winds is a question I can’t answer, but I feel obliged to testify,” writes Sublette in the introduction to his book, noting that as he wrote, he was often unsure whether he should use past or present tense.

The Year Before the Flood narrates Sublette’s year in New Orleans, interweaving anecdotes, historical observation, a meditation on race relations, crime, and urban decay, and a breath-taking account of the city’s music, from jazz to hip-hop. Sublette foregrounds the story with his early childhood in segregated Natchitoches, Louisiana, rightly placing his account of New Orleans in the larger context of the South’s racial history. The result is a deeply personal, idiosyncratic book which contains some of the best writing about New Orleans I’ve ever read.

The fact that Hurricane Katrina irrevocably altered New Orleans just months after Sublette lived there gives his account a strange, caught-in-amber glimmer. But what makes the book so riveting is the way Sublette finely shows the way past, present, and future exist beside one another in New Orleans. To view Katrina—or any other event—as a solitary event is a mistake when considering a city with such deep traditions. Sublette locates New Orleans at the northern end of what he calls the Catholic “saints and festivals belt.” The city operates on its own calendar, he explains. The book’s chapters, which delve into everything from Mardi Gras’ racially fraught-19th century origins to modern hip-hop culture, are delineated by a succession of festivals, holidays, and parades. The yearly festival cycle means that time is different in New Orleans. In a city where young, husky black members of second line groups still learn how to play the arcane sousaphone and locals still talk about the floods of1957’s Hurricane Audrey and 1965’s Betsey, any statement about the present contains several deeply-embedded truths about the past. To make this point, Sublette borrows Egyptologist Jan Assman’s concept of “cyclical time”:

In New Orleans, once something happens it continues to happen…New Orleans presents a peculiar challenge for a writer, because it moves not only in linear time but also cyclical time…Linear time, representing a progression of numbered years—2003, 2004, 2005—coordinates the world; it’s the time history takes place in. It’s the scale of Christian philosophy, where there is a beginning, middle and end. But in cyclical time, each year is the same as the last—as in ancient Egypt, where the years weren’t numbered. Cyclical time relies on an elaborate schedule of festivals associated with the calendar to reinforce its timelessness, creating a rhythm that propels the year. Cyclical time is pagan, and local; it’s the time myth takes place in.

This astute observation subtly makes an important point about Katrina—the hurricane didn’t begin or end in 2005. The realities Sublette eloquently describes and analyzes, whether crimes or celebrations, continue. And the ecological deterioration, endemic blight and poverty, governmental ambivalence, and shoddy infrastructure at the heart of the hurricane were deeply rooted in the city’s sinking soil long before the storm. Sublette only directly addresses Katrina in introduction and afterword, realizing he can let the subtexts speak for themselves.

photo by Pia Z. Erhardt

His chapter on Hurricane Ivan unsettles the most. Dubbed “Ivan the Terrible” by the media, the Category Five storm swept up from the southeastern Caribbean, barreling toward the Gulf of Mexico in early September 2004. At first it looked as though it would lose strength before it made landfall in the United States, but by the evening of September 13th, it was clear that the tenth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded was still going strong. Sublette was in New York that week and he got his wife, writer Constance Ash, a last minute plane ticket out of New Orleans. Others were trapped on packed highways while Mayor C. Ray Nagin reluctantly said the Superdome would be available for the thousands of city residents without transportation. In an interview, the city’s emergency manager fretted about scant body bags and said, “This could be The One … you’re talking about the potential loss of a major metropolitan area.” But at the last minute, the hurricane curved northeast, missing New Orleans. The Florida panhandle and Alabama coast bore the brunt of the storm, but the poorly coordinated evacuation was a dress rehearsal for Katrina. The event, which happened just a month into his stay in the city, had echoes of 9/11 for Sublette, who experienced the attacks at close range:

For a long time, and especially since 9/11, Constance had been feeling claustrophobic in New York. We’d had two power blackouts downtown since 9/11, which served as reminders of how from one moment to the next you can be sucked from what you think of as your life into Disaster World. Constance had been wanting to go somewhere less vulnerable. So naturally we had gone someplace more vulnerable than Manhattan. I hadn’t quite realized that New Orleans was an island too.

By then I realized that moving to New Orleans was one of the stupidest things I had ever done.

Except for one thing. Despite the fact that we had to live in New Orleans, we were getting to live in New Orleans.

This ambivalence is precisely why The Year Before the Flood is such an honest, lucid account of the city. Sublette writes beautifully about New Orleans’ vibrancy: the beautiful rituals of jazz funerals, a Halloween party in a mansion that ends with a living room set by a full funk band and skinny-dipping in the pool. Every page pulses with love, music, and Sublette’s wry humor. But where other writers, both locals and outsiders, have allowed the city’s pulsing beauty to occlude their view of its problems, Sublette is utterly clear-eyed. His account does justice to what is unique and stunning about the Crescent City, but he’s nevertheless candid about the fact that New Orleans is, quite literally, a death-trap. Barely buffeted from hurricanes by shrinking wetlands, the city is also slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico (at a rate of one inch a year, in some areas). But ecological deterioration is not even the most pressing threat: when Sublette moved to New Orleans in 2004 the city had the highest murder rate in the country—a distinction it holds in 2009 as well.

New Orleans’ patchwork geography means that bohemian enclaves and some of the wealthiest blocks in the city flank its most dangerous ghettos. Besides riding out a hurricane during his first month in town, Sublette also discovered that the house he’d rented in the Irish Channel had been the site of a high-profile murder of a white Tulane student, stabbed to death in his kitchen by three black men with criminal records who’d knocked on his door, asked for money, and then pushed their way into the house. The summer of 2005, just before Katrina, was described by The Times-Picayune newspaper as “murdery.” In mid-July alone:

Someone sprayed a group of people with bullets, wounding at least eight, at a child’s birthday party in Central City on July 17. Later that night, four people were shot, though not killed, in a club at five fifteen in the morning. Three days later a fourteen-year-old honor student whose nickname was “Lady” was found raped and strangled with her housecoat in her Seventh Ward home. That same day, a man was found lying dead on Prytania Street in the Garden District and another man was discovered murdered in New Orleans East. On the twenty-third, two out-of-towners were booked for standing on a second-floor walkway at the Economy Motor Lodge on a seedy stretch of Tulane Avenue and shooting at people walking beneath I-10.

…An auto repairman was stabbed to death by his son on July 27. Three men were gunned down in separate incidents within a half hour on July 30. On Sunday morning, July 31, a man was murdered in front of the Lafitte projects on his twenty-eighth birthday. “Put the guns down,” his sobbing mother told [a Time- Picayune reporter]. “Put the guns down … you’re killing your own people.”

The catalogue of brutal murders goes on. When Katrina hit, the city was up to 173 murders for the year, “not counting anyone killed by the police.”

Sublette writes unsparingly about these realities, illuminating them with his grasp of the city’s history. He quotes Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton on cocaine usage and gunfights in the early 20th century to show that the city’s pulsating music always came out of difficult, violent circumstances. Sublette’s first book was Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, and rhythm also propels this book. Sublette writes with innate musicality; he delves into the city’s early jazz and its famous hip-hop labels, No Limit and Cash Money, with improvisational ease.

a Zulu Krewe float at Mardi Gras

His style channels New Orleans’ contrasts and confluences, subtly building to his crucial point: everything that is unique and beautiful about New Orleans is deeply linked to what is terrible about it. Two anecdotes, one about rapper Soulja Slim and one about his neighbors Dan and Peggy, amply make this point. Slim, who came up on the famous No Limit, was shot in the face and chest in front of his mother’s house when he was 26 in what was rumored to be a contract hit. At his funeral, the Rebirth Brass Band played in the streets after the service. His mother, a member of the Lady Buck Jumpers Social Aid and Pleasure club, danced her grief at the group’s second line that weekend. In the music video for “Slow Motion,” a Juvenile single Soulja Slim guest-rapped on which became a hit after his death, images of beautiful women in tight jeans alternate with footage of solemn residents of the Magnolia Projects holding hand-painted signs that read, “Thou Shalt not Kill” and “RIP Soulja Slim.” Says Sublette, “The video … combined lascivious slow-motion booty shaking and the sadness of a wake, expressing the tension between Eros and Thanatos that New Orleanians felt every time they heard the track on Q-93 or in a club.”

The story of Sublette’s neighbors provides a similar juxtaposition of celebration and pain, the central contrast of New Orleans itself, as relevant before Hurricane Katrina as it is now. During the Ponderosa Stomp, a weekend celebrating old-school roots-rock that coincides with Jazzfest, Dan and Peggy, who lived a bit deeper in the Irish Channel than Sublette, hosted friends from out-of-town. What was supposed to be a weekend of great music turned into “a freak-out week, courtesy of the drug dealers that infested their block.” On the first night of the Stomp, the dealers who worked Dan and Peggy’s block emptied a whole clip at their friend’s rental car as they drove away. The following day, Dan and Peggy heard shots again and rushed to their window to see one of the block’s young drug dealers lying on the street, bleeding, his pregnant girlfriend crying over his contorted body. He lived; the shooting was “some sort of retaliation thing.” But it was the last straw for Dan and Peggy, who decided that after four shootings in just a few months, it was time to look for a new place. But they had friends in town and it was the second night of Ponderosa Stomp, so that night they trundled off to the Rock and Bowl, the-bowling-alley-cum-music-club where the festival is held. “And this is what I learned,” Sublette writes, “above all when I was in Cuba, and I saw it reconfirmed in New Orleans: just because you’re dancing doesn’t have to mean you’re happy. It’s how you go on living in spite of everything.”

This is the essential summation of Sublette’s beautiful book, and of New Orleans. New Orleans—a city that has weathered countless disasters and tragedies: yellow fever epidemics, shootings, recurrent hurricanes. A city with customs, holidays, and a musical tradition unique in the United States. A city where many residents walk the same streets as their grandparents. A city that keeps dancing not because it wants to, but because it has to.

Ingrid Norton has written for publications ranging from The Chronicle of Higher Education to Soundcheck Magazine. This is her second review for Open Letters.

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